The Fallacy of the “Serious Writer”

Reading fees are straight up classist bullshit. And this idea that they weed out writers who are not serious enough is heartbreaking bullshit. All of the things that are marks of a “serious writer” are, conveniently, also things that tend to cost money. Go figure.

–Margaret Bashaar, Author of Stationed by the Gateway, Letters from Room 27 of the Grand Midway Hotel and Rungs (with Lauren Eggert-Crowe), editor and founder of Hyacinth Girl Press, and contributor to NonBinary Review

 

I keep hearing the “serious writers” argument for charging fees and I believe that this is an argument born of a broken system steeped in privilege. In my lifetime, I have been so poor that at times I didn’t even have $5 to put gas in my car, much less use it to use it to submit to a contest. During those times in my life, not entering a contest with a $10 fee had nothing to do with my level of seriousness or talent, but more to do with the fact that I was poor and living paycheck to paycheck, with nothing left over.

Using myself as an example it’s safe to say that a writer’s level of financial solvency and their “seriousness” as a writer are not commensurate states. The “serious writer” argument is an example of cognitive bias leading to a fallacy, and it is the bias borne of the literary class system that allows this fallacy to remain the “go-to” argument when discussing contest fees. The flawed logic is this: if a writer is “serious” about their work, they will follow a certain set of behaviors, systems, and a predetermined path—and that these steps will result in success. Ergo, deviation from this path means first, that the writer is not “serious” about their work, and second, deviation will result in failure.

This fallacy of the “serious writer” is not only a classist invention, but also a double-bind: conflicting messages which ultimately negate each other. The fallacy of the “serious writer” includes the argument that “serious writers” will invest money in seeing their work succeed—it makes no distinction between an investment of $5 or $75; it simply assumes that the “serious writer” has disposable income, and that disposable income should be spent on one’s work to prove “seriousness” of craft.

Other things the “serious writer” does? Spends X amount of time per day working on their craft—but there is no mention of when/how this should happen, how one arranges their writing time around “real world” responsibilities, such as full-time jobs, family responsibilities, school, etc. School is another element of the “serious writer”—they will go to school (which costs money, meaning more work or more debt), as well as a time commitment.

The “serious writer” fallacy includes more assumptions, of course, but the core of each assumption is the same: the things required of the “serious writer” are things that require disposable income, and/or leisure time. Working writers, who are often economically challenged at best, have very little of either. And yet, the fallacy of the “serious writer” burdens writers with the idea that taking on more debt to go to school, then never being able to pay off that debt as an adjunct professor with little time to then invest in your own work and even less disposable cash to do so is the hallmark of the “serious writer”, though it’s a circular argument that negates itself and manipulates the writer into believing that their “failure to launch” is their own fault, for not being “serious” enough about their work. So the idea that contest fees “weed out” writers who aren’t “serious” about their work is a line that we have been fed in order to perpetuate a system of gatekeepers (who, surprise surprise, uphold the patriarchal values of privilege and positionality).

When literary publishing was primarily physical publishing (for which writers were paid enough to earn a living), the gatekeepers were agents, editors, and publishers. You had to build a resume, or know someone to break in. The shift to online publishing made for a more egalitarian literary scene: you didn’t really need an agent upfront anymore, you could break in more easily, even if you didn’t “know someone.” There were fewer gatekeepers. Which is where high contest fees and the argument of the “serious writer” started to take root. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that 25 years ago there weren’t any fee-based contests—I assure you, there were. My first few disastrous years of submitting were only to contests advertised in the Classifieds section of Poets and Writers magazine (the purchase of which, was itself, a luxury; many times I simply wrote down addresses and fees while browsing in the bookstore). Why? Because resources were fewer, harder to find, and my peers/mentors, I found, were less generous in sharing their information. Rarely does a broken system ever admit to its brokenness. It’s not like anyone running the contests with the highest fees are ever going to say, “Yeah, we keep the fees high to keep out the riffraff, you know, those SJW poets, the women, the writers of color, we like to keep this contest the Talented White Guy Show.”

Bias exists in grey areas, liminal spaces, the cracks of plausible deniability. An editor can argue, “It’s not that we don’t want to publish writers of color, it’s just that they don’t send their work, and we read blind to let the work speak for itself,” and believe that they’re not upholding patriarchial values, because they never said, “We only like to publish this one demographic that has historically been the ones running the show.”

The refusal to take on the burden of balancing the scale in a system that has long been unbalanced is like a lie of omission vs. a lie of commission. When do we, collectively, hold ourselves accountable for the broken system and how we keep using it, instead of fixing it or scrapping it altogether? Let’s look between the lines: When we argue “It’s not that we don’t want to publish writers of color, it’s just that they don’t send their work,” we are saying, It’s not my job to make writers who have felt unwelcome in this publication feel welcome, it is their job to knock on a door that has historically not just been shut to them, but slammed in their face. We are asking marginalized writers to be both the lesson and the teacher, instead of educating ourselves and actively seeking these voices in order to bring balance. When we say “We read blind to let the work speak for itself,” we are saying, “quality of work” has been defined by white patriarchy in academia. Deviations from what is considered to be “serious writing” will be written off as poor writing, rather than considered on their own merits. Here is an easier way to look at this: A burrito is a terrible example of sushi. But a burrito is a great example of a Tex-Mex dish, just as sushi is an excellent example of a Japanese dish. Academia has told us that sushi is the only food, and that anything that isn’t sushi isn’t good to eat. We know that this isn’t true, and yet, these contests are skewed to only pick out the best pieces of sushi, and to disregard burritos, gyros, pizza, eggrolls and whatever other food metaphor you want to insert here.

The fallacy of the “serious writer” is a glass ceiling, invented to create a need for gatekeepers who keep some writers out, while rewarding other writers simply for showing up. The tragedy of this fallacy is that it blames the writer for being unable to shatter a glass ceiling that was designed specifically to exclude them from rising higher. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t game this system—like any system, there’s a way to game it. In the next installment of this series, I’m going to be talking to you about the odds, solutions, gambles and end-runs around these contests. They want to see a “serious writer”? How about a sneaky one?


 

alliebattsAllie Marini is the managing editor of Zoetic Press, co-founder of Lucky Bastard Press, and author of Here Comes Hell; Cliffdiving: Love Poems;  And When She Tasted of Knowledge, Her Eyes Opened; Heart Radicals (co-authored with Les Kay, Sandy Marchetti, & Janeen Pergrin Rastall); Southern Cryptozoology: A Field Guide To Beasts Of The Southern WildThis Is How It EndsPictures From The Center Of The Universewingless, scorched & beautifulBefore Fire; Unmade & Other Poems; You Might Curse Before You Bless

Economic Disparity in Academics & Publishing: It’s Rooted in White Patriarchy, No Matter How You Frame It

Submission fees are perhaps the clearest indication of an editorial staff’s commitment to genuine diversity. The higher the fee, the more likely that commitment is merely to the language of diversity rather than a commitment to see that the best possible writing from people of all creeds, colors, and classes sees print. It reifies structures of privilege, ensuring that those who can pay are those who succeed. —Les Kay, Author of The Bureau, Badass, & Heart Radicals, and contributor to NonBinary Review

Economic disparity in both academics and literary publishing is a serious issue, and no matter how you frame it, the roots of this are in a patriarchal system that upholds institutionalized racism, sexism, heterosexual/cis-gendered voices, and ableist attitudes by creating spaces where access is limited to those who hold opposing values in their writing. Consider the actual impact: prohibitively high contest fees guarantee that only people with disposable income (i.e., people that may not need the prize money as much) can enter. This essentially rewards those who are already in more of a position to see their work succeed in the first place, without the assistance of a contest win. In the last installment of this series, the mathematical model demonstrated that on average, only 50 entries are needed to break even on the award. So the next question that follows is “What constitutes a prohibitively high contest fee, and what is the economic baseline we use for parity?” In a completely un-scientific survey of my peers, most of whom represent a cross-section of the average working writer, I found that for most, contest fees are prohibitively expensive for most writers. Factors to consider: MFA degrees and student loans; a job market that favors adjuncts over tenure-track teachers; adjunct teaching, which creates inconsistent income and less time to devote to personal writing; the necessity of having a “real job” around which one must organize their writing time. Writers who manage any sort of disability often have a compromised earning potential and thus unreliable income, which allows little, if any, room for contest fees. Single parent households fall under the same umbrella of “economic instability” and home budgets that leave no room for disposable income, where a $20 expenditure on anything outside of the essentials is a luxury. Statistically, the burden of economic responsibility in single parent households falls to female-identified heads of households. The disparity grows deeper when we consider factors such as inequality of pay based on gender, and the systemic economic bias against individuals and families of color. Think I’m hyberbolizing? I wish. A recent poll revealed that on average, most Americans would be devastated by a surprise $500 bill, meaning that more of us have less disposable income than we’re comfortable admitting.  Consider then, how many contests have language in their guidelines that they want to attract diversity and re-affirm their commitment to upholding social justice values. The harsh reality is that in most cases, this language is simply that: language. The reality of contests with reading fees (and that goes for a $5 fee or a $75 fee) is that in more instances than not, the talent purportedly being courted are the writers who are too broke to enter. And we all know (but don’t like to discuss openly, it’s like a dirty editorial secret) that authors with enough disposable income to enter high-fee contests are not always as talented. Economic stability and leisure time are not factors that translate into “better writers.” So who do these contests actually end up serving? In many cases, the writers who need the contest prizes the least. The ones who have $5, $25, or $75 to invest in something other than the power bill, groceries, or gas to get to work. Who is shut out of these contests? Writers who have the most economic instability, and could really benefit from a contest windfall. In short, the writers who already have more privilege and positionality to begin with benefit the most from fee-based writing contests. Which, in the next installment, we’ll use as the springboard to discuss the fallacy of the “serious writer”, and how this invented lifestyle is used to reify the politics of marginalization in academics and literary publishing.


alliebatts Allie Marini is the managing editor of Zoetic Press, co-founder of Lucky Bastard Press, and author of Here Comes Hell; Cliffdiving: Love Poems;  And When She Tasted of Knowledge, Her Eyes Opened; Heart Radicals (co-authored with Les Kay, Sandy Marchetti, & Janeen Pergrin Rastall); Southern Cryptozoology: A Field Guide To Beasts Of The Southern WildThis Is How It EndsPictures From The Center Of The Universewingless, scorched & beautifulBefore Fire; Unmade & Other Poems; You Might Curse Before You Bless

Contest Fees, Economic Disparity, and the Fallacy of “The Serious Writer”

We’ve blogged before about how, as a writer, you should get paid (but probably won’t.) But what about the flipside to that—reading fees and contest submissions? Last week, opening up CRWROPPS prompted me to take this subject on. Regular journal reading fees are one thing (and if you like this series, we’ll spend some time with those, too). But for the purposes of this blog series, I’m going to be talking about creative writing contest fees.

#1 The Dirty Business of Fees, Transparency, and Where Is Your Money Actually Going?

Let me be clear: I’m not talking about submission fees for regular journal maintenance—that’s a related, but entirely different, subject. What I’m talking about are writing contest fees. I use most of the same writer’s resources that other writers do when it comes to finding places to submit: CRWROPPS, NewPages, Duotrope, The Review Review, Places for Writers (there are many others, run by generous working writers, but listing them all would take up my entire word count). For the most part, these services are all free to use (though some, like Duotrope, offer expanded features with paid subscriptions). I’ve been noticing a disturbing trend: more and more, I’m seeing calls for contests whose fees are prohibitively expensive, using free writers resources to attract submitters. I did some investigation—or rather, I tried to. The best I could come up with are some articles that are helpful. but don’t de-mystify anything: The Truth About Writing Contests, Writing Contest Fees, Entering Lit Mag Contests: The Fine Print  and When A Writing Contest Has A Hidden Agenda were all helpful in their own way, but none of them was able to specifically pin down the biggest question of all, which is, Where is my money actually going? I have found zero transparency when it comes to these contests, and that goes from the smallest presses all the way up to academic presses and university-affiliated prizes. When a contest is no-fee (as some of them actually are), they tend to have the most transparency: in these cases, the contest money comes from donations, independent funding, grants, etc. These contests—which I’ll revisit in a later post—have the greatest potential for actual diversity and are most often sponsored by those who truly are committed to equal opportunity and social justice in art. I’m no mathematician, but even I can use a calculator. For a contest that charges a $20 submission fee and offers a $1,000 prize, only 50 entries are needed to cover the prize. Zero transparency in contest results means that there’s no way to actually gauge how many entries come in for a contest—much of that number is based on the profile of the contest sponsor, the advertising, I would guess the fee, and the word-of-mouth. Unofficially, having worked masthead on contests before, I can safely say that even a brand-new contest with little advertising will attract well over 100 entrants. With that in mind, the question becomes, What happens to the remainder of the money brought in by a contest? If 100 people apply to a contest, then the next year’s contest prize is already covered. What then, happens with the following year’s reading fees? Are the judges paid (and if so, that’s another blog in itself.) Does the extra money fund the next year’s prize? Where does that money go, and why is it that so rarely do submitters receive anything for their fee than a form decline letter that’s sent through e-mail (also a largely free service.) This is a problem that could easily be resolves with more transparency from the organizers of writing contests. Why then, do we not have statistics for the contests—a VIDA count, percentages of marginalized groups represented, and a breakdown of how much money came in per contest and where it went? It wouldn’t be difficult for contests to announce those numbers with the winner’s list. Why don’t they, then? The next installment of this series will consider one of the primary factors that transparency can’t co-exist with writing contest fees—economic disparity limits access for those who represent values and voices which challenge the status quo.


 

alliebattsAllie Marini is the managing editor of Zoetic Press, co-founder of Lucky Bastard Press, and author of Here Comes Hell; Cliffdiving: Love Poems;  And When She Tasted of Knowledge, Her Eyes Opened; Heart Radicals (co-authored with Les Kay, Sandy Marchetti, & Janeen Pergrin Rastall); Southern Cryptozoology: A Field Guide To Beasts Of The Southern WildThis Is How It EndsPictures From The Center Of The Universewingless, scorched & beautifulBefore Fire; Unmade & Other Poems; You Might Curse Before You Bless

The Death of Art

I smell the white roses sweet-scented and growingOn January 10, David Bowie died, and on January 14, Alan Rickman died. The internet caught fire with the overwhelming outpouring of grief for two well-known, well-loved personalities. People posted memories of ways the two men touched their individual lives, of what their work meant to them and why they would be sorely missed.

When each of my grandparents died, I mourned the fact that I would never get to spend time with them again. I mourned the conversations we didn’t get to have, and the knowledge that they wouldn’t be able to pass on to me. On the other hand, I didn’t know either David Bowie or Alan Rickman, and chances are you didn’t either. So what is it that we’re mourning for when an artist dies?

There are two parts to both Alan Rickman and David Bowie that people have expressed despair over losing: the creative artist, and the personae they portrayed. In Rickman, we lost Severus Snape, we lost Judge Turpin, Alexander Dane, Hans Gruber, Colonel Brandon, and Harry. Roles that people loved or hated, but felt connected to. Rickman brought flesh to roles from some of our favorite books, and in that way, helped us to connect with them even more.

David Bowie’s personae weren’t necessarily characters you were already familiar with from literature, but they were no less fantastical: Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, the New Romantic, the Goblin King, the Man Who Fell to Earth. Many of these were inventions of Bowie himself – personae he took on as part of his musical career, becoming the characters in his songs. And it was precisely this investment of self that allowed him to create the kinds of songs that people loved and related to and identified with.

Which leads to the other, arguably more important, aspect of what we lose when we lose a creative person. Alan Rickman, in addition to being an actor, was also a director of the films The Winter Guest and A Little Chaos. As both an actor and a director, Rickman was legendarily kind and generous, and one can’t help but wonder what more Rickman could have done – what else he might have created, had he had a little more time.

Bowie similarly had come back from a career lull to create the critically-acclaimed Blackstar. Although, to say it was a lull is to minimize the importance of taking time off from producing content for mass consumption for the purpose of artistic exploration and experimentation, not all of which will result in something popular. But even though it is widely acknowledged that Blackstar was the deliberate creation of a man who knew his own death was imminent, it does bring up in people’s minds the realization that there will never be a next amazing album. That all the ways that Bowie encapsulated people’s experiences are now finite. That number will never increase.

Hearing our own experience, in the mouth of or from the pen of or on the screen by another person, validates us. Knowing that our own lived experience was not only shared by someone else, but was important enough for that other person to record and share with the world, makes us feel less like freaks or outcasts or monsters. Seeing other people embrace that vision of an experience and approve of it means that it might be possible for each of us to be loved for the people we are.

Losing a creative person whose work we identified with and admired means losing that source of approval. That layer of security. That permission to feel worthy of love.


 

lise-quintanaLise Quintana is the publisher behind Zoetic Press. 

Jackass Anatomy

On Tuesday, Jesse Valencia published a piece about what he learned in grad school. He says that he already had an MFA, but that he went back for an MA in literature because he “wanted to understand more about what made books and language tick.” An admirable goal, right? Although it does raise the question “Why don’t you just read more and analyze what you’re reading to get those answers for yourself?” Which is how most writers do it, isn’t it?

But apparently, an MA in literature at Northern Arizona University isn’t about the nuts and bolts of nouns, verbs and when to use the subjunctive tense. Valencia was disappointed to learn that “Apparently, “literary theory” refers to looking at texts from different socio-political lenses, rather than technical ones.” And because Valencia, a self-confessed non-reader, doesn’t really care about the social context of literature, this is the last thing he needs.

So Valencia, who is not yet done with his second graduate degree, has compiled a list of things that he thinks are “bullshit” about graduate school. Let’s look at it:

1. Trigger warnings

Why he hates them: “You can’t be swimming at the shallow end of the pool, avoiding the hard stuff.”

I actually agree with him on this one. I wouldn’t call them “bullshit,” but I would say that it’s nearly impossible to anticipate everything that might possibly trigger someone else’s trauma. Horrible things happen in society every day. People are killed in horrific acts of violence. Natural disasters rob people of their lives and wipe out their homes. People are subjected to slights, slurs and cruelty with casual indifference all the time. While I agree that it’s fair to let people know, in a general sense, that material in a given course might make them uncomfortable because of its depictions of negative events, I think that “trigger warnings” let people off the hook from engaging with difficult subject matter, and it’s hard to be a well-rounded writer or reader while sheltering oneself from difficult subject matter.

2. Imposter syndrome

Why he hates it: “For starters, I found the word ‘imposter syndrome’ to be an insult to those of us who really are imposters.”

While I agree that “impostor syndrome” is dumb, it’s for a very different reason. No matter what you’re doing in life, someone else is doing it better, faster, earlier than you. You are not the best at anything. And those people who are the best? They’re the ones we’re comparing ourselves to. Am I a successful writer? I say no, because I’m thinking of my own literary heroes. On the other hand, I’ve published plenty of material, which is more than I can say for many writers. So, the feeling that is being pathologized with the grand term “impostor syndrome” is a normal awareness that you’re not the special snowflake you wish you were. The irony is that Valencia calls it bullshit while demonstrating it.

3. Microaggressions

Why he hates it: “Asking someone what ethnicity they are or where they’re from is not aggressive…They’re unintended, miniscule offenses, like not saying ‘thank you’ when someone holds the door open for you.”

Valencia gives the same pitiful defense that perpetrators of microaggressions give all the time: it’s no big deal, I didn’t mean anything by it, get over it. He fails to see that microaggressions aren’t a thing in themselves – a single incident of someone asking where you’re from isn’t a big deal, but it is symptomatic of a society that ignores the intellectual contributions of marginalized people, preferring instead to ignore, belittle or exoticize them, which serves to dehumanize them.

4. Cultural appropriation

Why he hates it: “If you create something, and you put it out there, and you want other people to get into it and buy it and like it, it is completely retarded to get pissed off at people when they are then influenced by it.”

First off, bonus jackass points for working the word “retarded” in there! From his examples, he doesn’t seem to understand what “cultural appropriation” means, although I get the feeling that even if he understood that it’s more than being influenced by something, his point would be the same. There are artists who have been “influenced” by various cultures – think Mickey Hart’s Planet Drum or Paul Simon’s Graceland, both of which acknowledged and included musicians from the cultures that inspired the music and helped shape it. Then there are white artists whose work upstages the work of artists of color in a genre originated by people of color – think about white rapper Macklemore winning a Grammy in 2014 for a rap album, while Kendrick Lamar, a Black rapper whose work was widely thought to be better, was snubbed.

Cultural appropriation treats culture as though it has no more meaning than a product like toothpaste or paper towels. White people tend to try on the artifacts of other people’s culture without thinking about the broader context in which those cultural artifacts are used, or the emotional importance other people may attach to them. Which, like microaggressions, diminishes the people from the other cultures, dehumanizing them.

5. Ableism

Why he hates it: “If someone is offended by [the term ‘retarded’ used in the previous item], or thinks I somehow think of disabled people as being less than myself, that’s on them. It has nothing to do with me.”

Here is where Valencia exposes why he will never be a truly great writer. What he’s saying is “I don’t believe that words actually have any meaning or impact on people.” It’s the same argument that’s used with microaggressions – “I don’t mean anything bad by it, so if you take it badly, that’s not my fault.” Except that using the same word to denote a disability and a situation that’s inherently foolish or nonsensical is problematic at best. And taking no responsibility for your own words and their impact is an asshole move.

6. Privilege

Why he hates it: “People who adhere to victimhood culture and ideology will seek out ways people are privileged over others, or marginalized at the expense of others, and then try to pack all social experience into these ideas.”

Again, Valencia trots out the tired old defense “A person’s hard work is discounted when you tell them they got to where they are because of privilege, be it a job, or acceptance into a university, and so on. You strip them of their own success, their own blood, sweat, and tears.” This is coming from a man who is working on his second graduate degree. If hard work were a guarantee of success, millions of people who work multiple low-earning jobs in order to make ends meet would eventually be able to buy a home, get health care, and retire while they’re still young and healthy enough to enjoy some leisure after a long life of work. Sadly, that’s not the case, not because of a lack of blood, sweat, and tears, but because those people started off with fewer privileges. It’s a fact.

7. Safe spaces

Why he hates it: “Encouraging avoidant behavior is potentially one of the most damaging things you could do to someone who has experienced trauma.”

While I agree that trigger warnings are over the top, I don’t agree that safe spaces are unnecessary. It’s one thing to coddle students in an academic setting by allowing them not to read The Yellow Wallpaper or The Bell Jar, but it’s another thing to insist that students be challenged everywhere in every setting. It’s fair for people to be allowed refuge from the thing that scares or hurts them, and to insist otherwise puts you in the position of saying that you know better what’s good for someone than they know themselves, again, dehumanizing and demeaning them.

8. Internalized oppression

Why he hates it: “Like I’ve stated elsewhere, these terms are largely favored instead of individual agency.”

Again, Valencia betrays his lack of experience and empathy by ignoring the fact that when a person is immersed in messages that they are valueless, they may not only come to believe it, but to espouse those beliefs to others. Apparently, they didn’t cover Stockholm Syndrome at NAU.

9. Political correctness

Why he hates it: “It is incorrect to equate words with acts of violence, even if certain words and symbols can be connected to the collective trauma experienced by a historically marginalized group.”

Again, Valencia claims that words have no power. Words like “lynching,” “pogrom,” and “ethnic cleansing” have very specific cultural contexts. So do words generally used as perjoratives for people with various ethnicities and national origins. Political correctness is nothing more than asking for an awareness of the power of those words.

10. Problematic language

Why he hates it: “I am against all prejudice…I draw the line where all of this becomes policy. We should not be forcing people to not call each other names.”

Another tired, inadequate defense: punishment for hate speech is censorship. And it ignores an important truth: “free speech” only means “freedom from arrest and prosecution.” The government is not allowed to put you in jail when you show other people disrespect. It does not protect you from being fired from your job, called out in the media, or ostracized in society. Thinking that you should be protected from the consequences of your words is the wish to have it both ways – to be able to use words you know are provocative, but not be held accountable for the reactions those words provoke.

In conclusion

I agree with Valencia’s notion that human beings have agency. They can determine how they think, act, and speak. And thoughts, actions, and speech are all linked. The ways that we think about other people inform the way that we talk to and about them, and how we treat them. Actually thinking of other people with compassion and respect means that you can look at requests for respectful speech and recognition of other people’s experiences as reasonable, rather than “bullshit.”


 

lise-quintanaLise Quintana is the publisher behind Zoetic Press. She prefers using the term “fucked up” for most things. 

New Year’s Revolutions

I’m going to be blunt. You’re not losing 10 pounds. Go to the gym all you want, eat nothing but kale and microfiber—unless you’re having a limb amputated, you’re not losing 10 pounds. Every year, we all make resolutions to change ourselves and our lives, and we do nothing with them. We fail because change is hard. We fail because we are the way we are for a reason.

This year, don’t resolve to change who you are. Instead, double down on who you are. This year, be more you than you’ve ever been.

Are you a social butterfly? This year, get out and mix with some people you wouldn’t normally talk to. Listen to their stories. Share your own. Find commonalities and build bridges. If they don’t speak your language, ask them to teach you theirs.

Are you an introvert? This year, spend some of that quiet reflection time thinking about how you can impact the world without leaving home. Write some letters to friends or family you haven’t contacted in a while. Send a long, thoughtful email to your local congressional representative on a subject you feel deeply about.

Love the outdoors? Take a tip from David Sedaris and bring along a trash bag so that you can pick up any stray litter you find along your route. You’ll be doing your tiny part to make the outdoors more wonderful for everyone.

I’m on Facebook an awful lot. So much that my best friend has threatened to stage an intervention for me. This year, I’ve decided that I’m going to remember to post all my writing updates on my author page so that those folks who want to know about me can find news about something other than my dog. (Although he’s very cute.)

The point is, there’s nothing wrong with you. This New Year, your resolution should start from that premise and work outward. Sure, everyone can improve themselves, but that just means you’d go from being wonderful to being fabulous. Zoetic Press loves you, and is looking forward to another year of being proud to be part of a beautiful, vibrant literary community.


 

lise-quintanaLise Quintana is the publisher behind Zoetic Press. This year, she’s going to spend more time with her dog, get more sleep, and incorporate mangoes into more of her cooking. 

Starring PANK as Desdemona

 

othello_and_iagoReputation, reputation, reputation! O, I have lost
my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of
myself, and what remains is bestial. My reputation,
Iago, my reputation! (Othello, Act 2, Scene 3)

So Cassio laments to Iago, who assures him that reputation is nothing. Let’s hope that Roxanne Gay, the former co-editor of PANK, holds a similar opinion about the importance of reputation, because hers is about to take a hit.

This fall, Roxane Gay and M. Bartley Seigel announced that they were stepping away from PANK. Since the success of her book Bad Feminist in 2014, Gay had been increasingly in demand, and she and her co-editing partner put out a half-joking offer to sell PANK for $25k. But if we’ve learned anything from the Martin Shkreli debacle, it’s that douches have money and are willing to spend it on things that they will then ruin for everyone else.

John Gosslee, former editor at Fjords, who has also published work in the notoriously problematic Rattle, has purchased PANK and is now running it along with Chris Campanioni and Ashley M. Jones, although Roxane Gay is still on the masthead as a founding editor. This means that her name will forever be tied to whatever PANK becomes, which, if Fjords is any indication, will be an embarrassment and a scam. Gosslee has two other editors on the masthead, but neither has previous editorial experience, which means that Gosslee’s is the only editorial mind into which anyone has insight.

pank
This is what we know of Gosslee’s editorial tastes. He doesn’t approve of “vindictive protectiveness,” meaning that he’s unhappy about the consequences of publishing racist or misogynist material.

Twitter was ablaze with indignation that a well-respected journal run by a high-profile PoC was being handed over to an editor that has made his views of diversity and respect clear. On 12/17, Gay tweeted “…As with others, I am disheartened by what’s happening w/the mag Matt and I put heart and soul into…” but it comes across as disingenuous. Did she not look into the career or reputation of the person who was buying PANK? Or did she look no further than the money? Listen – times are tough for writers of all stripes, and I can’t fault someone for not being able to pass up $25k, but that dollar figure now stands as the amount Roxane Gay’s reputation is worth. With Gay’s name on the masthead, a novice writer submitting to PANK still has a chance of thinking “Roxane Gay is going to read my writing.”

As editors, all we have is our reputation. If we make mistakes (and we’re human, so it happens), the best thing we can do is come clean about it and admit that we exercised poor judgment or acted hastily or misunderstood a situation. But if we shrug our shoulders and say “yeah, that kind of sucks,” abandoning our fellow writers and the projects we’ve started to their fates, we share in the guilt.

In an online world where people are all too happy to pile onto anyone’s misstep to crucify them, a reputation can take years to build and moments to lose. If you had a reputation as a great editor, an insightful essayist and an outspoken social commentator, how much would someone have to pay you to throw it away?


 

lise-quintanaLise Quintana is the publisher behind Zoetic Press. She understands firsthand how fragile reputation can be after photos of her kissing her dog on the lips circulated on the internet. 

 

 

 

 

More of Our Favorite Books This Year

Last week, we re-capped our reading lists from 2015, with some of the favorite titles submitted by Zoetic Press staff and contributors. With a scant 10 days left in the year, we decided that there’s no such thing as “too many great books that we can vouch for.” In that spirit—giving you more titles to consider for your 2016 reading schedule—here are some more of the titles that really made an impact on our staff and contributors. We hope that between this list and last week’s list, you’ll find a title that piques your interest & allows us to share something that we loved reading with you.

furiously-happy

1. Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things, Jenny Lawson.

Full disclosure: if you have crippling anxiety and depression, this is either exactly the book you need…or exactly the book you should avoid. There is no middle ground on this. I myself come from the “If-I-can’t-laugh-about-this-I’m-going-to-cry” camp, making this book exactly what I needed. It’s a realistic, poignant, and uproarious look at a very serious, sobering state of being. It breathes a bit of much-needed levity into living with depression and anxiety, allowing us to feel less alone, as well as demonstrating that not only are these conditions often unintentionally hilarious, but that they don’t necessarily mean that you’re doomed to a somber, serious life if you live with them. My biggest critique with this book is its defamatory attitude about possums, which, truth be told, is my biggest critique about most books. It’s a “how to live with this shit” book that actually keeps in mind that “living with this shit” can be just as funny as it can be serious. — Allie Marini, Zoetic Press Managing Editor

SMYS_large

2.  Sing Me Your Scars, Damien Angelica Walters

This book pushes boundaries and reshapes the world with a sybaritic symphony of the strange. The stories in this collection needle the edges of intense emotions as Walters tugs on loose thoughts and fears, stitching the reader into unfamiliar skins. A couple of my favorite pieces include “Grey in the Gauge of His Storm,” a lyrical and violent story about domestic violence, and the titular story “Sing Me your Scars,” an ode to the complexity of identity in a world reshaped by trauma and tragedy. Self-blame, regret, loss, revenge, and remembrance finish this insightful contemplation of the empty spaces left behind. —Carina Bissett, Zoetic Press contributor

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

 

3. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Ransom Riggs

I devoured the Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children trilogy. A little Harry Potter, a bit Wrinkle in Time, these books are fast-paced and imaginative. A modern teen seeks to solve the mystery of his grandfather’s death and embarks on an adventure that leads him to multiple places in time with a cast of incredible and fun characters. Each book picks up exactly where the previous one left off so you’re always in the action. I recommend setting aside a weekend to read these; waiting a month between finishing the second book and the release of the third felt tragic. —Jillian Phillips, Zoetic Press Contributor

miranda july

4. The First Bad Man, Miranda July

If you have read and liked Miranda July’s short fiction, then her first novel-length work won’t disappoint you, because it contains the same elements that make her odd, instantly recognizable prose memorable and poignant. The characters themselves are quirky—but not in a way that’s unbelievable. These characters, though eccentric, act in ways that are authentic, and their reactions to conflict feel consistent and real, even as the characters grow and change. There is a lot to absorb here: the idea of sexual identity is challenges and examined in ways that don’t feel political, but humanistic, and there are a few scenes that are uncomfortable (and even a little vulgar) that end up endearing the reader to the characters, rather than alienating them. This novel is the closest thing to a true picaresque I’ve read since Mark Twain, and it’s definitely one I’m going to re-read a few times. Bonus for the official website being like July’s other official sites—fun in itself—50 objects mentioned throughout the novel. I won’t spoil it for you. If weirdos who are achingly human are your thing, check out this novel. —Allie Marini, Zoetic Press Managing Editor

gaiman

5. Trigger Warning: Short Fiction & Disturbances, Neil Gaiman

If you’re like me, Neil Gaiman makes you feel endlessly inadequate, and yet, you love him anyway. With a productivity level rivaling only Stephen King, I’m really surprised how good they all end up being—the only thing that makes sense is a) he sold his soul for this talent or b) (probably more likely) that he manages this hat trick by mixing genres, shifting from novels to graphic novels, to children’s and YA fiction to short prose. Trigger Warning is a short fiction collection, which is really sort of borderless. There’s horror shorts, ghost shorts, sci-fi and fantasy pieces, fabulist work, short verse and poetry, really, this collection contains a little bit of everything. But really, the two most compelling reasons to read this collection if you’re not an avid fan of everything Gaiman writes are the inclusion of a brand-new story from the American Gods world, as well as a Doctor Who story, written specifically for the 50th anniversary of the show. These two stories alone are worth the cover price, making the other stories in the collection feel like a gift. A good sampler for someone who’s never read Gaiman before (because there’s truly a taste of everything he does included), and a must-have for avid fans (especially ones who love American Gods and Doctor Who.) —Allie Marini, Zoetic Press Managing Editor

On Hard Work and Writing

Mike Minchin has an opinion about what constitutes “hard work.” 

According to him, “hard work” means exhausting, repetitive manual labor done in conditions that could range from uncomfortable to hazardous. It’s a Hemingway-esque definition – working class, all physical. According to his definition, sitting at a desk spending forty hours meticulously re-wording PowerPoint slides in an effort to create a presentation that will entice investors to part with a lot of money would not constitute “hard work.” Nor would sitting in a cubicle doing the work of three people for a boss who takes all the credit and tells you that you should be grateful for having this job that sucks out your soul so that you end up being diagnosed with PTSD after leaving. Those aren’t hard work. Hard work is the kind of labor that, since the Industrial Age, people have been inventing robots to do.

Minchin is indulging in the “hasty generalization” fallacy.  He has done work that he considers hard; when he writes, it is different than the work that he considers hard; therefore writing is not hard work for anyone. But just because writing does not fit his definition of “hard work” doesn’t mean that the act of writing is the same experience for anyone else. To maintain that your own experience is the universal standard and that anyone who claims to have a different experience is wrong is, at the very least, breathtakingly arrogant.

Minchin does two disservices to other writers. The first is that he takes his privilege for granted. “I write in the early morning until my kids get up. And then I work all day…in a hospital.” So, he’s not working for minimum wage. He has the luxury of being able to work a single job that leaves him enough emotional bandwidth at the end of the day that writing can be an enjoyable exercise. In the U.S., 7 million people work more than one job just to make ends meet, and the luxury of time to write is out of reach.  He portrays most writers as “sitting down in a café or a dark closet with a cup of coffee or a nip of schnapps” as they write. Again, not the experience of the majority of people writing. He describes writing as “divine” and “a beautiful, liberating process that feels unlike any work I have ever done in my life.” He doesn’t mention the crippling self doubt as he anticipates all the people who will question his right to tell his story. That will extrapolate from his fiction a set of personality traits that render him inhuman and worthy of not just contempt, but threats, in the eyes of his readers.  That Minchin’s life is set up so that he has spare time, a place of his own to work, and he isn’t under threat of being arrested or killed for his writing are privileges of which he seems blissfully oblivious.

The second disservice he does is not thinking about why other people might find writing difficult. It’s not enough just for an author to come up with a story, but that author must make the story engaging, the language beautiful, the words truer than true – otherwise that author risks losing the audience. And the very best writers make it look easy, but as people who have struggled with endless re-writes while trying to make their prose look on the page the way it looked in their minds and hearts know, it’s anything but. People like Jack Kerouac, who said “One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.”  Or Robert Frost, who said “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” And, finally, Thomas Mann, who said “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”


lise-quintanaLise Quintana is the publisher behind Zoetic Press. She writes in a hermetically sealed, oxygenated chamber with a staff of chocolate-, tea-, and cheese-serving robots and an entire coterie of bright young things answering the many calls and emails from agents and editors who are all clamoring for her next jewel-like work. 

Our Favorite Books This Year

YEAR ENDYear-end “Best Of” lists are one of our favorite parts of the holiday season, recapping all the things that we absorbed and identified with throughout the year—from the music that kept us moving, to the movies that made us think, to the books that gave us stories to feel and characters to identify with—these are the things that really sum up a year’s worth of being human and hearing stories in all their forms, and we’re always curious to peek into someone else’s bookshelf to find out what we missed. So we rounded up our associate editors and some of our closest contributors to find out what stories have echoed in the Zoetic Press family. We hope that you’ll find a title on this list that sparks your interest & becomes one of your 2016 “Best Of”-s! (Please note that since we’re not “annualists,” and we understand that sometimes lending books and word-of-mouth takes time, we’re including a couple books published in recent years, that we read in 2015.)

Art of Asking

1. The Art of Asking or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Let People Help, Amanda Palmer

My own writing practice and broader creative life are strongly fueled by collaboration: asking, giving, receiving, co-creating, and expressing gratitude. In that light, Amanda Palmer’s “The Art of Asking” gave me reassurance that I am creating in a good way, as well as the inspiration to venture farther without fear. Through her own tumultuous journey into fame, wonderment and controversy, Palmer uncovers a convincing philosophy about how creativity WORKS. She isn’t obsessed with her relationship to the things she makes, but much more interested in the relationship between the artist and her audience. That relationship itself becomes the real artwork, continually evolving movement by movement into something deeply affirming and endlessly fascinating. After reading, I love her—and, I realize, I’ve become part of the art.

—Daniel Ari, Zoetic Press contributor

I want to second this nomination—though in doing so, I realize that at least 2 Zoetic Press staffers may want to intentionally hurt me. This book is a life-changer, if you can get past the “AFP” hype of the internet. What this book demonstrates is an emotionally complex, flawed, beautifully human artist who wants to create art on her own terms without compromising the ethics she holds most dear—and the means she uses to achieve this end is reliance on—and trust in—her audience to help her financially, emotionally, physically, and psychically. The gift is always in motion. Take the fucking donuts.

—Allie Marini, Managing Editor

Uprooted

2. Uprooted, Naomi Novik

Uprooted is a story of magic, wizards, princes, and monstrous forests. The prose is effortless and the plot is full of action and horrific events while being laced a number of themes, from issues of class and ecology to an exploration of myth and storytelling. But what makes Uprooted one of my favorite books this year is the the deeply moving friendship between Agnieszka and Kasia, which is the true heart of this story. Having known each other all their lives, these two young women at first care for each other with a young innocence. As the story unfolds and their hidden anger and petty jealousies are revealed, their friendship evolves into deeper trust and it becomes revealed how much they are both willing to sacrifice for one another.

Andrea Blythe, Associate Editor

H is for Hawk

3. H Is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald

To cope with her father’s sudden death, Helen Macdonald, a poet, historian and falconer, raises and trains a young (and notably difficult) goshawk. Macdonald’s prose is impossibly delicate, pretty—a stark contrast to the weight of her father’s death and the “bulkier, bloodier, deadlier, scarier” goshawk.

–Lyndsay Hall, Associate Editor

archipelagos

4. archipelagos, Michael Passafiume

The poems in archipelagos are heart-wrenching; Michael details the minutiae of everyday life that look so very different in the dim light of tragedy, the relationships we have in life that always seem to be straining under an unspeakable pressure. This slim collection of poetry got under my skin and stayed there for a long time– is still there. It’s one of many books I carry in my bag everywhere I go.

–Kolleen Carney-O’Brien, Zoetic Press social media maven

if only you people

5.  If Only You People Could Follow Directions, Jessica Hendry Nelson

Memoir can go either way for me, and I feel like I’ve read everything I can about addiction, but Nelson’s collection of vignettes about her life as a woman surrounded by chaos was captivating. I could not put down this book, and I loved it’s non linear format. It’s like hurriedly sneaking a peek at someone’s diary, and picking up in a different place each time, for fear of being caught.

–Kolleen Carney-O’Brien, Zoetic Press social media maven